From Elephant & Castle to Preston

Monday 22 Jul 2013

The wars of taste rumble on in the UK

This is a confusing time for those of us with the capacity to admire things made of concrete. Earlier this month came the pleasing news that Ernö Goldfinger’s 1963 office block development in London’s Elephant & Castle, now in residential use under the name Metro City Heights, has been Grade II listed. And last week, the recent renovation of Park Hill Estate in Sheffield was shortlisted for the RIBA’s Stirling Prize. This huge, bold housing project was completed in 1961, and has regularly been thought doomed ever since. These are two rare good news stories for fans of twentieth-century architecture to cherish – even if they were reported in tones of faint disbelief in the mainstream press. By contrast, much important post-1950 work remains in peril, if it remains at all. A painful case in point, as reported in World Architecture News in April, is BDP’s Preston Bus Station.

Metro City Heights joins a large selection of Goldfinger’s work already under the protection of listing. In London, projects range from his 1938 terrace of modernist cottages in Willow Road, Hampstead to the utter, confrontational Brutalism of his residential blocks from the late-1960s: Balfron Tower in Poplar and Trellick Tower in North Kensington. A monumental set of reinforced concrete and glass towers, Metro City Heights is a bit less architecturally abrasive than those two Brutalist icons.

The accommodation is built around outside space including a large, tranquil pond, and its towers are joined at most levels by glazed walkways. In the context of the many grimly uncared-for buildings in this unloved part of inner South London, Metro City Heights feels airy, quaintly utopian, and seriously out of step with its surroundings. Sadly, the public spaces, open to all before the conversion from offices to flats, are only for residents now. The original spirit of the site was also compromised by the hasty flattening of Goldfinger’s stern, concrete-faced Odeon cinema back in 1988. After the Department of Health moved its headquarters out in 1991, the development stood empty for several years and was very nearly demolished; moves to list it at this time came to nothing. It survived mainly because of a developer’s astute decision to seek planning permission to convert the building for residential use.

The Grade II listing of this important 1960s project, among Goldfinger’s own favourites, is very welcome. That holds true whatever remains at risk elsewhere, and whatever has already been lost of the original set of buildings. However, this decision to list is unlikely to mark any kind of turning point in public taste. It’s a relatively rare success, against the grain of current popular opinion. The politician responsible for accepting English Heritage’s advice and approving the decision, Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey, may not want to test voters’ tolerance for unpretty buildings too far.

In fact, as apparently brave listing decisions go, this one is pretty tame. Goldfinger’s reputation is already clearly established and widely endorsed, and this listing safeguards a building far less divisive than the examples of his work that are already listed. What’s more, it’s in an area soon to be engulfed by drastic demolition and redevelopment anyway; compared to the coming change, this act of preservation is a minor, if well-chosen, exception. And crucially, Metro City Heights has already been successfully reinvented: it only survived into the 21st century because it found a new, lucrative existence as a residential development, so the news of its listing presents no barrier to commercial viability. In more challenging cases, that search for a new, financially sustainable life still lies ahead.

It all makes you wonder what the listing process is really for. Perhaps a more pressing test of the system lies elsewhere: 200 miles to the north west, Preston Bus Station (1969) remains at the centre of an increasingly bitter argument over preservation and demolition. In Preston and far beyond, enthusiasts see huge value and a reason for pride in a genuinely iconic building. Others, including the city’s council, appear to want it gone in favour of some unspecified better future. This may be no more than a surface car park, according to some reports. At the time of writing, English Heritage is just about to present its advice report on the question of listing to the Minister for Culture.

The outcome is extremely uncertain, but it will be a more blunt indication of our attitude to 1960s and ‘70s architecture than the listing of another fine Goldfinger project. Preston Bus Station deserves protection because it is a building of high quality and historical note, but also because its commercial viability and functional future are not yet assured. This is a classic case for a bold decision to list, so that a viable way forward can be planned, and public taste can have a chance to catch up.

You can’t list everything, of course, and nor should you want to. The perverse truth is that cherished things sometimes need to go, to make space for equally fine alternatives. Ian Fleming apparently named his most famous Bond villain after Ernö Goldfinger because, when they were neighbours in 1930s Hampstead, Fleming hated the architect for demolishing a row of treasured eighteenth-century cottages to build his Willow Road terrace. Yet Goldfinger’s replacements have been listed buildings since 1974. Indeed, number two is now the property of the National Trust, and opens to a grateful paying public five days a week. The lesson there, if there is one, is to pick your battles wisely. But we could do with a few more brave souls willing to take up arms in defence of our recent built past.

Matthew Freedman

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